Not to be confused with The Hot Zone, The Burning Zone, or Burn Notice, The Burn Zone is James K. Decker’s first novel under his own name. (He previously published the Revivors trilogy as James Knapp.) It’s got a hot girl with two guns on the cover, and has a cheesy tagline: “They came in peace. That wasn’t good enough.” It’s also quite engaging when Decker gives the reader a chance to breathe.
Set in the near future, China’s got air cars, limited teleportation technology, and eyelid Internet. Some of this comes from a treaty with the haan, a race of aliens that crash-landed on a Chinese city decades ago. Physically weak and without the resources to return home, the haan offer their scientific advances to the Chinese government in exchange for help raising their young, who are distributed to willing citizens in a subsidized surrogacy program. This would be a win-win situation, except the haan require about eighty-percent of the nation’s food supply to survive.
Sam Shao is one of those surrogate mothers, a survivor of illegal flesh farms that provide desperate Chinese with human scrapcake for food. As the story begins, she’s immediately thrown back on the street, her apartment trashed by government operatives and a haan emissary, and accused of associating with a terrorist. She spends the next thirty hours on the run, desperate to rescue her only friend and uncover a conspiracy that unsurprisingly goes all the way to the top of the Chinese government and the haan matriarchy.
Frontloaded with setting, backloaded with revelations, and overloaded with incident, The Burn Zone is too action-packed for its own good. Decker’s description of science fiction set pieces is amazingly detailed, but after the third or fourth time Sam passes out from exhaustion, the constant chase sequences become a blur. Sam goes through a lot in just one day, and after a kick-ass naked fight scene, fighting off government agents and aliens whose true forms are imperceptible to human consciousness on a series of extraterrestrial surgical bays suspended over a bottomless pit just seems unnecessary.
Still, Decker delivers a complete story, revealing all the mysteries introduced over the course the book rather than storing them away for a sequel. It’s an intriguing setting with a lot of promise, and there’s certainly more to explore. But The Burn Zone is a fun, heady, fully-formed genre novel on its own as well, and that’s a welcome exception in today’s series-driven market.